Breastfeeding is hard work. This comes to a surprise to many first-time moms, myself included. The CDC reports that 83 percent of U.S. moms start out breastfeeding. By 12 months, that number drops to about 36 percent. There are a million reasons why a mom might choose not to breastfeed or to stop breastfeeding, each reason equally valid as the next in my book.
No mom needs anyone’s validation except her own.
When breastfeeding my son stopped suiting me, I stopped doing it. Arguably, it would have been the best thing for him. And maybe that’s true, at least nutritionally. But health is more than just nutrition. The best thing for my son is to have a mother who recognizes her own limits and sets her own boundaries and takes care of her overall health—mental, physical, spiritual.
The best thing for my son is to have a mother who recognizes her own limits and sets her own boundaries and takes care of her overall health—mental, physical, spiritual.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, so I felt guilty that I “only” breastfed for a little over three of them. I felt like I had to explain myself to people, and so I did. I told them I “had too much on my plate” and that my workday was “too packed with meetings to maintain a pumping schedule.” These things were true, I didn’t lie. These factors played into my decision. But these factors weren’t the only reasons behind my choice.
Put simply, I was tired of breastfeeding. Put even simpler, I was tired.
Plenty of moms continue breastfeeding even though they’re tired of it, even though they’re tired in general. I applaud them. In fact, I’ve also been one of them–with daughter, my second child. She’s 10-months-old and so far, exclusively breastfed. I don’t consider this to be any better or any worse than how I fed my son. It’s just what’s working for me right now.
Here is what I’ve learned about motherhood from both of my experiences.
Perfectionism Is Overrated
I tend to be an all-or-nothing person. I’m working on that. I’m working on accepting my best effort even when it isn’t perfect—in all aspects of life. I once was a perfectionist, but now I’m a mom.
Now, I do what I can with what I have. As mothers, we don’t have the time or the luxury to indulge in perfectionism. Every day is a new challenge, and all we can do is give it our best shot. If we all waited until we were ready to be the perfect mom, none of us would have kids.
I approached breastfeeding my son with the all-or-nothing mentality of my pre-mom self. This was part of the reason I stopped doing it altogether. My supply dipped when I went back to work. My constant anxiety and concern over eating enough, hydrating enough, sleeping enough, doing enough to maintain a supply overwhelmed me. I already wasn’t making enough, I’d already failed to meet the basic AAP guidelines, so I thought, what’s the point? Rather than continue to pump what I could and supplement the rest, I weaned. It was what was best for me at the time.
Looking back, I wasn’t a failure. I was human. I no longer consider my three-month breastfeeding journey with my son as a failure but had I stopped with my pressure for perfection, the breastfeeding experience probably would have been better for me.
I didn’t go into my second time around intending to be an exclusively-breastfeeding mom. I went into it with the attitude that I’d breastfeed for as long or as short as it worked for me. I fall firmly into camp fed is best, and after three years as a mom, I’ve come a long way in giving myself grace and accepting my best effort.
My supply dipped again when I went back to work. This time around I thought, I’ll pump what I can and supplement the rest. And then what happened? My supply regulated itself once again, and I didn’t end up needing to supplement. But I was ready and willing to—and still am—if that becomes necessary.
Letting go of the perfect to make room for the good enough completely transformed my second breastfeeding experience, and it is something I’ve carried with me into my motherhood experience as a whole.
It’s Okay to Prioritize Yourself
My life is different now than it was when I had my son. For starters, my son was born approximately nine months after my husband and I moved cities, approximately six months after we both started new jobs, and approximately two months after we renovated and moved into a new home. A first-time pregnancy, a move, a new job, a new home, and a new baby, all in the span of less than a year. Whew.
As the weeks of my maternity leave dwindled down, I experienced anxiety and depression unlike any I ever have, and I hope to never experience again. It was, of course, postpartum depression that didn’t hit me until about three months out. Recognizing this, I saw my doctor immediately and resumed a much-needed anxiety medication that I had worked closely with my doctor to discontinue safely and successfully during my pregnancy.
While the medication was safe to take while pregnant, it was not preferable, and for whatever reason, my mental health did not suffer without it while pregnant. Perhaps I didn’t need to be on it, after all, I thought. So when lactation consultants urged me to continue my life without it—again, safe while breastfeeding but not preferable—I did.
As the weeks of my maternity leave dwindled down, I experienced an anxiety and depression unlike any I ever have, and I hope to never experience again.
And then the PPD hit, and I opted to prioritize my mental health. I have never regretted that decision. I could have continued breastfeeding even with the medication, but there were many other factors that influenced my decision to stop. I needed to prioritize myself to be the best version of myself.
During my second pregnancy, again working closely with my doctor, I discontinued the medication successfully and safely. As my due date drew nearer, I told my doctor I wanted to resume the medication immediately this time. She agreed and supported me fully, arming me with information about the proven safety of this medicine while breastfeeding.
When lactation consultants came into my hospital room 24 hours after my daughter’s birth and kindly suggested that I consider holding off on resuming the medication while breastfeeding, I replied that I would rather not breastfeed than not resume my anxiety medicine. They never brought it up again.
I learned an important lesson that day: if I communicate my needs and my boundaries to others, people will have to meet me there. But no one else is going to prioritize me for me. That’s my job.
You Don’t Owe an Explanation
Just because you can does not mean you have to. This applies to breastfeeding and everything else, really. You don’t have to have a supply issue to choose a different path. I’m oversimplifying it, of course, but after many conversations with many people—including formula moms and breastfeeding moms—it seems that the only “acceptable” reason not to breastfeed, in many people’s eyes, is because you tried, but it just didn’t work out. And that’s simply not the case. There are infinite reasons to choose not to breastfeed, including that you just don’t want to do it.
It’s not selfish. It’s a valid choice.
What makes a choice valid? Nothing. There’s no checklist a mom needs to pass to meet the validity requirement. A mom’s choice is about how to feed her baby is inherently valid because it’s her choice. That’s it. That’s what makes it valid. Because she’s the mom. She doesn’t owe anyone a reason.
As a formula mom, people asked how long I breastfed for or why I stopped. Now, as a breastfeeding mom with a baby inching up on the 1-year mark in a few months, it’s the opposite. How long are you going to breastfeed? When are you going to stop? Most people mean no harm or have no judgment; they’re just curious.
I don’t mind answering, I just don’t offer explanations this time. My answer is always the same: I don’t know. As long as it’s working for me.
Any mom can tell you that there are plenty of people out there second-guessing her decisions. Asking questions that don’t deserve answers. If it’s not about breastfeeding, then it’s about potty training, and if it’s not about potty training, then it’s about discipline, and if it’s not about discipline … you get the point.
The only explanation we owe to intrusive questions is because it’s what works for us.
There Is No “Easy Way Out”
Truth be told, being a mom is hard enough. It shouldn’t matter who has it harder or easier. Everyone’s experience is different, and what may be a challenge for one mom, may be quite easy for another. And vice versa.
I commonly hear from other breastfeeding moms how much easier formula would be, and while it is easier in many ways, it also comes with challenges.
“Sometimes, I’m jealous of the formula moms. It would be so convenient.” I was pumping, sitting across from another breastfeeding mom at a work conference in a room that conference organizers designated as the “moms’ room” when she said this to me.
In that moment, pumping every three hours throughout air travel and a five-day conference away from my baby, breastfeeding was most definitely the harder option.
Two months earlier, on a four-hour flight home from a family vacation in which my baby screamed the entire flight, breastfeeding was undoubtedly easier. I popped her on my boob and nursed her for hours because it was the only thing that would calm her down and keep her quiet. In fact, studies show that breastfeeding calms a child and can help them handle stress better during the times when they aren’t nursing. Nursing for comfort is a huge perk of breastfeeding, and it is often the most effective way to calm a crying baby.
A mom who formula feeds doesn’t always have that option. I know because I’ve been here too. A mom usually on a flight brings the amount of formula she knows she’ll need–maybe some extra just in case–and once it’s out, it’s out. There’s no comfort feed to quiet her baby. Once she makes a bottle, she needs to ask the flight attendants if they can bring her a cup of hot water to warm it. The cup may not even be big enough to dip the bottle into, and inevitably, some of the scalding water will spill onto mom’s leg.
I’ve wished many times, in many places that I could pop my baby on for a nursing session to quiet the screams.
All of our struggles are different. Let’s not play the Who Has It Harder game. Let’s just cheer each other on from the sidelines.
Different Does Not Mean Better or Worse
I went into my first birth experience with an open mind and few requirements: an epidural for me and to get my baby out safely, whether it was vaginal or C-section. My son’s head measured large in utero, and my mom had required a C-section with my brother due to the size of his head, so I mentally prepared myself for any and all possibilities.
Except one. My full-term son took an unexpected trip to the NICU for breathing issues. That possibility hadn’t even crossed my mind. I associated the NICU with preemies. He wasn’t a preemie. He was four days overdue. To say I was a mess when nurses took him off my chest after less than a minute of skin-to-skin and sent him to the NICU for oxygen would be an understatement.
Without immediate skin-to-skin and with his NICU needs, we didn’t have an opportunity to try breastfeeding right away. By the time we did attempt it, my son and I spent multiple days in the NICU, both of us crying, failing to latch, failing to breastfeed.
A nipple shield saved us. But it was a short-term solution, and I then spent five stressful weeks trying to get him to latch without it. When I went back to work, and he started getting most of his breast milk through bottles at daycare, he refused to nurse during the times we were together. I found myself in yet another latching battle. As he refused to nurse, combined with a number of other factors, my supply dipped.
When my daughter was born, she did not go to the NICU. She latched within a few hours, my supply has remained relatively stable, she transitioned easily between breast at home and bottle at daycare, and the rest is history.
My two experiences looked and felt wildly different from each other. Neither is better. Neither is worse. They’re just different. We should give others grace and respect, of course, when their journeys look different than ours. But what about ourselves? Are we giving ourselves grace and respect?
And that, perhaps, has been my greatest lesson through my very different feeding experiences—to give myself the same grace I so willingly offer others but tend to withhold from myself when things look different than I expected.
This article was originally published in May 2020. It has been updated for timeliness.